Well Water Contaminants FAQ: Arsenic

"40 percent of the residents of New Hampshire use water from a private well, and approximately one-fifth of those wells contain water with arsenic levels above 10 parts per billion." - Dartmouth College Study

A recent study found that 50% of the wells in New Hampshire had some level of arsenic present. The Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 doesn't grant the EPA authority to regulate or monitor private wells. If you get your water from a private well, you are responsible for the maintenance and safety of your water supply. You should have your well water regularly tested and if contaminants are found, it is your responsibility to remedy any problems. 

Arsenic is a Class 1 carcinogen and currently ranks number one on the Priority List of Hazardous Substance published by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. If your testing finds arsenic in your well water it is serious, but treatment options are available.

What is Arsenic?

Arsenic is a semi-metallic element that occurs naturally in rocks and soil. It is odorless and tasteless and can combine with other elements in the soil to form both organic and inorganic arsenicals. As a general rule, inorganic derivatives are more toxic than organic forms. 

How Does Arsenic Get Into Your Water?

Arsenic generally enters the water supply through a process known as leaching. As rainwater or snowmelt passes through soil containing arsenic on its way to the aquifer, it is dissolved and carried. Arsenic can also be released through other natural processes such as volcanic eruptions and forest fires.  Human-related arsenic releases are also common. Paint, dyes, metals, drugs, soaps and semi-conductors all contain  trace amounts. Any of these products can release arsenic into the water supply. Processes like agriculture and mining can also contribute to arsenic reaching the water supply.

What Are The Health Effects of Exposure?

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 set enforceable standards to ensure the safety of drinking water. These standards are calculated using a measure called the MCL or maximum contaminant level. The current MCL standard for arsenic is 10 parts-per-billion which is roughly the equivalent on a few drops of ink in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. This should give you an idea of the danger arsenic poses to health.

Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause an increase in the risk of chronic health problems. In children, exposure can cause serious neurological and behavioral issues. Long-term exposure to arsenic in drinking water can cause skin, lung, bladder and kidney cancer even in small doses. Inhalation through aerosol exposure (like the steam in a shower) can cause lung cancer. 

Soluble inorganic arsenic can have immediate toxic effects. Large amounts can cause severe vomiting, blood disturbances, damage to the nervous system and eventually death. 

Should I test For WATERBORNE Arsenic?

Absolutely! As a homeowner with a well, it is your responsibility to maintain the health and safety of your water supply. You should have a water quality test performed by a state-certified laboratory at least annually. Testing for arsenic should be included in your annual test. 

Testing your well is your responsibility and shouldn't be taken lightly. The good news is that it's estimated that only .35% of the population suffers from arsenic contamination. The bad news is that it's also been estimated that 50% of the wells in New Hampshire and other New England states with high concentrations of granite bedrock have at least trace levels of arsenic. If you're unsure, test your well!

What Do I Do If Arsenic is Present In My Well Water?

If upon testing your well, arsenic is detected, the first step is not to panic! Treatment options are available that can completely remove all arsenic from your drinking water. Treatment includes both point-of-use (POU) systems (at a source like your kitchen faucet) and point-of-entry (POE) or “whole house” systems. Your water professional can help you to determine the level of contamination and the appropriate treatment options for your situation. 

POU systems like reverse osmosis or distillation devices can reduce arsenic levels. Pretreating by using chlorination or oxidation may be necessary to make these methods most effective. POE or whole house systems which pre-treats water before it enters your home's plumbing are also available. The best option is to first have your water tested and then speak with your well water professional about your available options and the costs involved. Always test your water a second time after installing any system!

Remember, your well health is your responsibility. Annual water quality testing (including for arsenic!) is the best way to ensure the health and safety of your family and provide you with peace of mind. If you have concerns about your well water supply, contact the water well experts at Skillins & Sons and learn the testing and treatment options available to you.

Links to Additional Articles on Arsenic Contamination and Treatment